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Breda O’Brien: Learning to listen to those with whom we disagree is vital

People conceived through surrogacy have something important to say about its ethics

Once, on a radio programme, I did so badly on an important issue that I could not even come into my home after it. Instead, I walked mechanically four times around a nearby green before the humiliation faded enough to allow me to enter my own front door.

That day, the late Noel Whelan, who was on the opposite side of the debate, was kind after we left the studio. He put aside whatever political differences we had in order to respond to someone as a human being.

I remember hearing about another incident involving two men who also sadly died at a relatively young age. Brendan Shortall of the Pro-Life Campaign told me that after the final debate in one of the highly contentious referendums in the 1980s, after slugging it out on-air, he and Adrian Hardiman (later a judge of the Supreme Court) went for a cordial pint.

I don’t think that kind of thing happens so much anymore. Now, the instinct seems to be to shut down, to cancel, to declare anathema, to burn the heretic. Even entertaining the idea that your ideological opponent might be right about anything is seen as dangerous, verging on thoughtcrime.


That is why it was heartening to see letters to this newspaper declaring that while the writers do not agree with Senator Sharon Keogan on many issues, she has a right to speak and be heard about surrogacy.

You do not even have to agree with the way someone expresses their ideas, in order to support their right to speak. It is worthwhile, however, to watch the debate on surrogacy which led to the committee meeting being suspended and eventually to Keogan's resignation from it.

Keogan spoke softly and slowly, expressing a view that many people in this country share. She said: “I wholeheartedly object to the commercialisation of the human child and the regulation of women to the status of simply incubators or wombs for hire. Irrespective of whether a person is heterosexual, single, lesbian, gay or transgender, surrogacy is harmful, exploitative and unethical. I do not believe it is everyone’s right to have a child. It is a privilege to give birth and it can be dangerous, even for those with the best medical attention.”

In 2019, Sarah Dingle addressed an event in the Palais De Nations, Geneva, dealing with children's rights in an age of biotechnology. It coincided with the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Dingle said: “There is no right to bear a child under international law. Children are not goods and services that State or business can guarantee or provide.”

Dingle, a journalist and author of Brave New Humans, along with 15 other adults who were conceived using donor sperm, or through surrogacy, flew at their own expense from Australia, the UK, Europe and America. It was the first time people conceived by these methods were heard at the UN.


These donor-conceived and surrogacy-born witnesses talked about commodification, being conceived to meet the needs of others, about half their identity being missing, and the exploitation of gamete donors and women who act as surrogates. They spoke of “decades of profiteering in the global trade in sperm, eggs, embryos and wombs”.

Dingle and the others received a prolonged standing ovation from those attending the conference in Geneva. Keogan got called "cold and cruel" by Senator Lynn Ruane for expressing much less trenchant views.

Keogan does not have direct, lived experience like the witnesses in Geneva have, but she is speaking for them, nonetheless. At the Oireachtas committee, people talked about the importance of stories. The personal testimonies given were moving and important to hear.

It is equally important to hear the experience of people conceived through reproductive technology who are now adults, who believe passionately that no government anywhere in the world provides sufficient safeguards, and that therefore there is currently no such thing as ethical surrogacy.

Dingle concluded her address by saying: “Every child has the right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which we celebrate here today, to identity to family, including biological family, and to not be bought or sold.

‘An afterthought’

“Every child has the right to be heard. We are the products of this industry and we have not been heard or respected. If we are included at all, we are an afterthought – a tick-the-box exercise so that governments and business can progress with their documents and proposals.

“But we are the voices of surrogacy and donor-conceived people. We are now grown, and our voices are stronger. We know what is in our best interests and what is not, and we hope you are listening.”

Listening does not come naturally to any of us. It is difficult even when we agree with someone and almost physically painful when we do not. Nonetheless, it is a vital skill. Listening does not mean that we have to agree, but it does mean being open to learning something, even and perhaps especially from those we perceive as ideological foes.